Identity politics seems intuitive but has very different meanings depending on the person using it. People exploit intuitive notions of “identity” or the ambiguity of “identity politics” in order to manipulate people. I advise caution both when you see people criticizing “identity politics” AND when you see people defending it.
This was initially an item on this list, but it was hard to make it match the format of the other items, and it also kind of exploded into the length of a full post, so…
What is identity politics?
As with other terms that get used propagandistically, identity politics is an overloaded term, and people often use that ambiguity to pull a bait-and-switch. In the case of identity politics, this ambiguity is especially hairy. A portion of what identity politics can mean:
(1) A political platform based around one’s identity. For example, feminism is an example of identity politics where being female is the identity around which a subset of political issues are made particularly relevant. Other examples include movements centered around black rights (civil rights movement), LGBT rights, disability rights, the Men’s Rights Movement, white nationalism, etc. One’s identity as members of these groups define political positions that are especially relevant or high-priority.
(2) In practice, people use identity politics to refer specifically to social justice movements i.e. the identity politics-1 of marginalized groups.
(3) A form of politics where the identity of politicians is itself the goal / a form of social progress. For example, arguing that it’s important to vote for someone because they are gay, Latina, Catholic, etc. is this kind of politics. Identity politics in this case is a specific form that identity politics-1 or -2 can take on. Identity politics-3 can be used pejoratively (especially in socialist circles) to refer to a form of politics where diversification of powerful classes is seen as more important than changing/weakening the power structures themselves.
(4) A collection of *rhetorical* tactics (often not specified) in service of identity politics-2 that imply that a person’s identity is of paramount importance in a discussion, and which tend to put people on the defensive. Depending on the person railing against identity politics-4, these may include:
– Pulling the “gender/race/etc. card” (e.g. “Well, as a black woman…”; “You can’t say/do that if you’re white”)
– Talk of diversity as a main political goal (similar to identity politics-3, but potentially applying to diversity in areas outside politics/positions of power, and the issue is with the pronouncements but not necessarily the goal)
– Responding to identity-neutral criticism with identity-laden defenses (e.g. in response to someone calling a politician corrupt, “Interesting how we only care about corruption when it’s a woman”)
– Simply mentioning issues affecting a particular identity that will seem trivial to those outside the identity
Much of the issues with identity politics has to do with its ambiguity. I’ll use the example of this op-ed by Mark Lilla to walk through just some of the issues with identity politics ambiguity.
Issues with identity politics-4 deployment
This op ed seems to be about identity politics-4 specifically. For example, at one point Lilla says,
This short passage illustrates some of the issues with appeals to identity politics-4. First, identity politics-4 is extremely vague. The list I gave when defining identity politics-4 is united around the theme of “we should talk less about identity” but it’s not clear what this means. Is it okay to talk about identity if other people talk about identity first? Is it okay to point out coded identity signaling? How can I tell when someone is “playing the woman card” versus giving me their perspective as a woman? What issues count as so trivial as to be alienating rather than helpful? Who decides that? Do people who criticize identity politics have issue with the positions proponents of identity politics hold or just the fact that they talk about those positions?
What I find confusing is that op-eds like this never define what they’re talking about and yet I see people sharing them enthusiastically, having apparently understood exactly what the speaker meant. In this sense, identity politics-4 functions like political correctness — it seems to rely heavily on people “just knowing” what the speaker is talking about, and so the listener and the speaker think they agree but they can be thinking of different things entirely. In the example above, Lilla mentions a “proper sense of scale” as if people automatically know and agree on what this is, but is his notion of “proper sense of scale” really the same as the readers enthusiastically sharing his op-ed? This appeal to common sense is vague.
Second, some critics of identity politics-4 claim their position is consistent with continuing to support identity politics-2. However, if so, critics of identity politics-4 are arguing for an esoteric style of politics, one where you avoid mentions of identity or identity-laden issues in politics but possibly still implement them — quietly — when actually in power. I disagree with this style of politics. If a policy is worth implementing, it is worth defending and debating in public.
In addition to those issues inherent in using identity politics-4, there is also the issue that arises when criticism of identity politics-4 does indeed bleed into or entail an abandonment of identity politics-2. The particular case of bathrooms that Lilla picks out as being “highly charged” and thus one that “liberalism” should treat “quietly” (whatever that means) happens to be one where a call to be quiet on it amounts to calling to abandon it. Post-transition trans people have been using bathrooms of their chosen gender for decades; recent state bills proposed by Republicans bar them from doing something they have done for decades, often with the rationale that trans women (or people claiming to be such) will molest women in the bathroom. This is not an issue where being quiet on this issue would be discreet or sensitive. Being quiet on this issue would be simply declining to defend people being actively demonized and scapegoated even though their behavior or the fact of their existence has not changed. As such, I find that Lilla’s criticism of “messaging” or “tactics” amounts to an abandonment of identity politics-2.
The asymmetry of identity politics-2/-4 deployment
Another major issue exemplified by this piece is the asymmetry in the application of identity politics criticism. Identity politics is seen as something that is deployed by the Democrat party but not the Republican party, or deployed by people with various oppressed identities but not by people with dominant identities.
For example, Lilla is typical in citing identity politics as the reason the Democrats lost the election (Lilla: “Identity politics, by contrast, is largely expressive, not persuasive. Which is why it never wins elections — but can lose them”). For this to make sense, it must be the case that Republicans did NOT deploy identity politics (of whatever kind Lilla is talking about, probably -4); otherwise, it’s very much the case that identity politics can (and just did) win elections.
Identity politics-4 is defined so as to only be relevant to identity politics-2 and the Democrat platform — I’ll talk about the issues with this asymmetrical application later. But first, I want to comment on how asymmetrical notions of “identity” create asymmetrical applications of “identity politics”. Dominant identities tend to get rendered invisible, so when people think of “identity” and how it is mobilized, they only consider black/Asian/etc., LGBT, disabled, woman, etc. as identities rather than the dominant “normal” identity they are defined against. This intuitive asymmetry of “identity” means that a lot of deployment of identity politics-1 by Republicans is not seen as identity politics. However, the platforms of Republicans who promised a Muslim ban are straightforwardly identity politics-1, the politics of people with non-Muslim identity. Same goes for anti-immigrant sentiment, which serves to deploy and make relevant people’s identity as non-immigrants.
When this piece acknowledges the existence of identity politics belonging to dominant groups (-1), it contradicts its other assertion that identity politics does not win elections and shows this first issue with the asymmetrical application of identity politics. Lilla: “Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.”2 Lilla thus acknowledges that identity politics-1 can indeed win elections, but it will be the identity politics of white supremacists that can pull this off, not the identities the Democrats have chosen to rally around.
Rather than being blind to dominant identities, Lilla’s argument ultimately rests on a fear of them.
In other words, the asymmetry Lilla is appealing to is not just the asymmetry in what counts as identity. What determines the difference between winning and losing is not the deployment of identity (identity politics-1 and -2) but the deployment of marginalized identity (identity politics-2 and -4, which is defined to be specifically the rhetorical tactics of a platform that makes dominant groups feel guilty). Rather than being completely blind to dominant identities, Lilla’s fallback argument ultimately rests on a fear of them: they outnumber us; they’re more powerful than us. If we make them feel guilty, we lose. (By being vague about what exactly they mean about “identity politics”, though, critics rarely come out and say that this is what they mean!)
I find this argument worst of all. The left has always been built on standing up for the underdog. We have never done this because it was popular and inoffensive but because it was the right thing to do. To be part of the left is to struggle uphill, trying to convince people of existing injustice, a moral imperative for change, which, yes, might create feelings of guilt in people. I am not saying winning isn’t important — it is crucial. (I also disagree winning with this strategy is impossible — see note 2.) But in order for the left to truly win it must publicly defend its issues of identity politics-2 in a political platform and win a democratic vote. That is what a leftist victory looks like.
Issues with identity politics defenses
However, this op-ed is only the beginning of the issues in how identity politics is deployed. The second problem is how identity politics is defended. In response to this op-ed, there were several responses such as this Salon piece, which defended identity politics, but were also guilty of using ambiguity to pull some bait-and-switches themselves.
First, defenders of identity politics often respond to attacks of identity politics-3 and identity politics-4 as if they were attacks on identity politics-2. And they’re not wrong — I talked earlier about how Lilla does in practice advocate for abandoning certain types of identity politics-2. In addition, it’s common for detractors of “identity politics” to say they support social justice (-2) but in practice seem to spend most of their time derailing social justice discussions into criticisms of “messaging” (-4 criticism) and often no time showing solidarity with social justice movements (or in an unguarded moment admit to disagreeing with positions in addition to messaging). I think a degree of skepticism is healthy and warranted. However, we will continue to talk past each other as long as people can insert whatever definition they want when coming to the defense of identity politics-2.
Second, defenses of identity politics often lumped identity politics-3 critics with identity politics-4 critics. I have not talked about identity politics-3 that much (even though it arguably appeared multiple times in Lilla’s piece3), but this third definition of identity politics has a specific meaning on the socialist left. The Salon piece references Sanders’ call to move beyond identity politics, which is straightforwardly a usage of -3 (“It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me.'”). It then claims Lilla parroted Sanders, even though Sanders and Lilla — as far as I can tell — have deep disagreements on rhetorical strategy (see note 1). It’s true that Lilla and Sanders agree on the fact that “identity politics” is bad in some way but they disagree entirely on what they mean by “identity politics” and why it’s bad: for Sanders, diversification of political classes is actively good (Sanders: “Right now, we’ve made some progress in getting women into politics — I think we got 20 women in the Senate now. We need 50 women in the Senate. We need more African-Americans”) but not good enough, not sufficient to be a leftist candidate or sufficient to end injustice, and for Lilla talking about marginalized identity loses elections.
However, similar to identity politics-4, dislike of identity politics-3 can bleed into an abandonment of (or a justification for outright hostility toward) identity politics-2. Declining to explicitly address the identities of power positions often results in society-wide power structures being replicated in leftist movements in a way that pushes women and minorities out and marginalizes their political issues. It is also true that criticisms of identity politics-3 can bleed into criticisms of identity politics-4 (people making their identity salient will be seen as tactically unwise and dismissed as not being sufficiently “big tent”, or as “splitting the movement” — such hostility to talking about identity can be found both in the far left and in the center).
The identity of a politician is not as important for advancing the identity politics-2 of the group they belong to as their political platform is.
That said, the basic identity politics-3 criticism that Sanders put forward is an important point that most people can agree on — the identity of a politician is not as important for advancing the identity politics-2 of the group they belong to as their political platform is. People can easily recognize, for example, that if Ben Carson, Sarah Palin, or Ann Coulter were president, they would not generally be advancing the interests of black people or women in the U.S. However, the benefits of seeing a person from a marginalized group breaking glass ceilings and being in a position of power are not nothing, and so those benefits have to be weighed against that person’s political positions. Trade-offs are hard to perform and even harder to agree on — people will differ on how much weight to give each consideration.
In this way, because of the vagueness with which “identity politics” is condemned, people who defend “identity politics” can choose to conflate critics of -2, -3, and -4 as doing the same thing and having the same politics, even though they have very different politics and are making very different points. Doing this allows centrist leftists to avoid having a conversation about how much weight to put on a person’s identity versus their politics, because they can and will dismiss such criticism as anti-identity politics-2, even when both sides of the argument believe they are fighting for identity politics-2.
So let’s recap. These are just some of the things going on in the debate over “identity politics”:
Everyone (including Democrats) seems to agree that Democrats deploy identity politics-2, -2+3, and -4. Centrist critics of identity politics dislike -4 and this possibly bleeds into disliking -2 and -2+3 as well. In doing so, they will often render identity politics-1 invisible, or as more powerful (and thus more legitimate) than identity politics-2.
Socialists dislike identity politics-3, and this possibly bleeds into dislike -2 and -4 as well. Sanders seems generally fine with identity politics-2, -2+3, and -4, but dislikes when identity politics-2+3 becomes the main way of accomplishing identity politics-2. Centrist defenders of identity politics will conflate all forms of identity politics critique and use this conflation to deflect criticism away from the Democrats and portray critics of “identity politics” as necessarily undermining identity politics-2.
If you think it’s clear what you and others mean when invoking identity politics, I think you are just mistaken.
Instead of / when you encounter “identity politics” you should:
(1) Be specific. Say exactly what you mean. Vagueness, ambiguity, and reliance on people “just knowing” what you’re talking about serve propagandistic functions, not the promotion of truth.
(2) Be able to recognize how identity politics in its various forms are applied asymmetrically. One should always have a healthy amount of skepticism for rationalizations that justify abandoning the marginalized in society for no reason other than “they are less powerful.”
(3) Notice when people use identity politics vagueness and ambiguity to tar very different positions with the same brush.
↑ 1 Lilla meant to say “parody”/”steal from”/”riff on”, not “paraphrase”. As far as I can tell, Bernie Sanders has not said anything that could be summarized down to that (the line that Lilla is riffing on is Sanders’ “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your [Clinton’s] damn emails!”). Rather, Sanders’ actual views on the issue of bathrooms are basically the opposite of Lilla’s: he’s not afraid to talk about bathrooms, and rather than viewing this issue as yakked up by identity-conscious liberals, he views it as driven by right-wing bigotry. Which is objectively the correct analysis of the situation.
↑ 2 This despite the fact that overlapping identity politics-2 movements like feminism or LGBT rights have the ability to eat into rival identity politics-1 movements, and that the “wide tent” of the Democrat party (the sheer number of identities it cares about: gender, race, sexuality, etc.) is easily a majority of the U.S.
↑ 3 Lilla’s piece starts off framing diversity as the main strategy of the Democrat party (before shifting to other topics). Does this mean identity politics-3 is bad (focusing on diversifying rather than changing power structures)? Or that identity politics-4 is bad (the act of centering one’s rhetoric around marginalized identities likely to alienate people by repeatedly mentioning “diversity”)? Or that identity politics-2 is bad (trying to change group power relations at all in favor of the marginalized)? Very unclear. But certainly, identity politics-3 could be considered a form that identity politics-4 can take, so I can buy that Lilla dislikes both -3 and -4.